Mount Rushmore/Rapid City Area Road Trip Loop: Iron Mountain Road, Custer State Park, and Needles Highway

    As part of our 7-Day Rapid City Itinerary, we suggest this nature and wildlife-filled road trip loop. Starting at Rapid City, drive 16A to Iron Mountain Road to the East Entrance of Custer State Park. The highly enjoyable Wildlife Loop Road will lead you to Needles Highway. Enjoy a break at Sylvan Lake before heading back to your hotel.

    Iron Mountain Road

    Planned by Governor Peter Norbeck, the ninth governor of South Dakota, Iron Mountain Road is a gorgeous drive of twists, hairpin turns, and narrow single roads

    Built with tourists in mind, the 18-mile long highway often has speed limits of 15 mph to get you through the sharp turns. The highway meanders up and down the gorgeous Black Hills with beautiful vistas of the forest and a peek-a-boo view of Mt Rushmore.

    “This is not meant to be a super highway, to do the scenery justice you should drive no more than 20 mph and to do it full justice you should simply get out and walk.”

    Senator Peter Norbeck

    Custer State Park

    Iron Mountain Road will bring you to the entrance to Highway 36 and the east entrance of Custer State Park. Custer State Park is South Dakota’s first and largest state park at over 71,000 acres and now celebrates over 100 years.  The park costs $20 for a 7-day pass. We took the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road in hopes of seeing some of the 1300+ head of bison.

    Near the entrance, a sign states “Buffalo are dangerous. Please, do not approach. animals.” How did they know that I just want to ride the buffalo? Buffalo are right up there with giraffes, we could have races!

    Before we started the loop we came across mountain goats by the entrance sign. We saw mule deer, pronghorns, and bison in the far distance about a mile away, and the begging burros.

    The burros once took visitors to the top of Harney Peak. Once the rides were discontinued, the burros were released into the park.

    Stop at the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center or the Wildlife Station Visitor Center to learn more about the area. Pick up a Pups Program activity book for kids ages 4-6 and learn how they can earn a patch. Older kids 7-12 can participate in the Junior Naturalist program to earn a certificate, gold seal, and an embroidered patch.

    When Peter Norbeck visited in 1905, he realized that many animals had been hunted to near extinction. In 1913, a game preserve was made. In 1914, 25 elk from Yellowstone National Park and 25 bison from a rach were brought in. In the following years, more game animals and birds were brought to the new preserve. The state game preserve became Custer State Park in 1919.

    The 18-mile Wildlife Loop through prairie and ponderosa pine forest took us about an hour to drive through.  I recommend going earlier in the morning or late afternoon for a chance to see the bison herds closer to the road. The bison are also more active Mid-July to Mid-August when it is breeding season.

    Drive through the Needles Eye Tunnel, if your vehicle is less than 8 feet, 4 inches wide and 12 feet high.

    Needles Highway

    We took Needles Highway out of the park. Also planned by Governor Norbeck, Needles Highway is a scenic 14-mile section of highway 87. This stretch of highway gives tourists more great views of the Black Hills, two more very narrow tunnels – Iron Creek Tunnel and Needles Eye Tunnel, and views of granite spires and Needles Eye. Enjoy the scenic road through pine and spruce forests, rugged granite mountains, and meadows.

    I feel we only scratched the surface of the park during our visit and could have easily spent a few days exploring the park. Custer State Park could be your destination point. The park has nine campgrounds, www.campsd.com. Seventeen hiking trails go through the park ranging from 0.5 miles to 10.3 miles.

    Sylvan Lake

    Visitors can picnic, boat, or fish at one of CSP’s four lakes, Sylvan Lake, Legion Lake, Stockade Lake, or Center Lake. Stop for a bit and let the kids run around. Explore the area on the 1-mile walking trail, Sylvan Lake Shore Trail, around the lake. For true hiking families, take the 7-mile loop Black Elk Peak Trail up to the summit and visit Harney Peak Fire Tower.

    Tips for Visiting:

    • Check out Custer Park’s annual events including the Buffalo Roundup Arts Festival and The Annual Buffalo Roundup when the bison are round-up to be tested, vaccinated, and branded.
    • Custer State Park has 5 entrances:
      • East Entrance – comes in from Iron Mountain Highway
      • Blue Bell Entrance – closest to Jewel Cave National Park
      • West Entrance – near the town of Custer
      • Sylvan Lake Entrance – closest to Crazy Horse monument
      • Wilsons Corner Entrance – closest to Needles Highway
    • There are 3 centers to visit:
      • Custer State Park Visitor Center located at the junction of Wildlife Loop Road and Hwy 16
      • Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center – located on Hwy 16 near the State Game Lodge
      • Wildlife Station Visitor Center – located on Wildlife Loop Road
    • You’ll need to purchase a fishing license to fish in the park.
    • Your 7-day Custer State Park entrance license is valid at all South Dakota State Parks. Nearby parks include Angostura Recreation Area near Hot Springs, Bear Butte State Park near Sturgis, and Rocky Point Recreation Area near Belle Fourche.

    Tunnel Information

    Six tunnels can be found in the area in or near Custer State Park. If you have an oversized vehicle or travel with a camper or RV, you’ll want to know the sizes of the tunnels before you attempt to drive through.

    • Iron Mountain Road
      • Doane Robinson Tunnel – 13’2″ wide, 12’2″ high
      • C.C.Gideon Tunnel – 13’0″ wide, 11″0″ high
      • Scovel Johnson Tunnel – 13’2″ wide, 12’4″ high
    • Sylvan Lake Road
      • Hood Tunnel – 10’6″ wide, 9’10” high
    • Needles Highway
      • Needles Eye Tunnel – 8’4″ wide, 11’3″ high
      • Iron Creek – 9’0″ wide 11’4″ high

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    Theresa Jorgensen

    Theresa is the mother of four including twins. She is the owner of SixSuitcaseTravel, a travel site for big families of 5, 6, 7, 8. She enjoys helping other big families build life-long travel memories. Her family's travel bucket list includes Yellowstone, London, and anywhere in the Caribbean.